Hormone use in beef cattle triggers unfounded fears, concerns from consumersWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“The main concern about hormone use in cattle that we talk about is the health risk that’s associated with growth promotants, and it’s a pretty easy one to answer. There aren’t any. But there are a lot of questions around it,” explains Reynold Bergen, science director at the Beef Cattle Research Council in Alberta, Canada.
When cattle are treated with hormones, they receive a small pellet that is implanted in the ear between the skin and cartilage. The pellet dissolves slowly over time and releases small amounts of hormone to contribute to cattle growth and efficiency.
“The reason the pellets are put in the ear is because at slaughter, the ear gets thrown away. It doesn’t enter the food chain, so if there happens to be any residual pellet, it will never find its way into the beef,” he says.
Six different kinds of hormones are used in cattle, and the newest one has been in use since 1975. Three of the hormones are natural – estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, and three of them are the synthetic versions of the natural drugs.
“The reason we don’t need to be nervous about hormone use is because, no matter what kind of human we are, the amount of hormone that we are already producing every single day absolutely dwarfs the amount of residual hormone we would ever get from beef,” he remarks.
As an example, a prepubescent male would need to eat the beef from eight whole cows every day to equal the amount of estrogen that his body produces naturally.
An adult woman would need to eat the beef from 95 whole cows per day to reach the equivalent for her body.
Bergen also comments, like all drugs, hormones used in beef cattle are researched extensively before they are ever put into use.
“The first thing they have to do is prove that the drug works. If we’re trying to approve a growth promotant, we have to prove it promotes growth. The next thing that we have to prove is that it’s safe, both for the animal we are going to use it in and for humans,” he says.
When lab tests are done in various animals, researchers determine the lowest level at which they begin to see negative effects. This dose is then divided by an uncertainty factor to adjust for different species, ages, genders, etc.
“Based on that information, they will decide what dose is safe if humans are exposed to it every single day of their lives,” states Bergen.
Unfortunately, a lot of public misperception comes from good science that has been used badly or the occasional bad science.
“We need valid research done in real-world conditions to provide an accurate perspective on whether these are valid concerns or not,” he notes.
Concerns have also been raised about environmental issues surrounding hormone use, but Bergen explains that valid studies have only been produced in lab conditions with very little perspective from the real world.
“There is no evidence that there is an environmental concern under realistic commercial conditions,” he says.
Despite the available evidence that supports the use of hormones in cattle, it is easy for consumers to be concerned. To combat this, Bergen proposes continued research so quality science is available to answer questions that come from consumers.
“There is a lot of fear,” he says. “These questions are directly related to consumer confidence.”